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Cardinal Pell not anti-Semitic but Dawkins is Humourless

April 10, 2012 – 10:13 pm104 Comments

By Anthony Frosh
In one of the highest profile episodes of the ABC’s Q&A program, evangelical atheist Professor Richard Dawkins debated Australia’s Cardinal George Pell.

The most entertaining aspect of the episode was watching Dawkins on several occasions bellow at the audience (whenever they laughed) “Why is that funny?!” As one rather witty aired tweet alluded to, this would be, along with the question of whether there exists a deity, one of the great scientific or philosophical questions that Dawkins would never be able to answer.

At rather one dramatic point, host Tony Jones tried to paint Pell as having said something anti-Semitic, an event that brought much joy to the face of Dawkins, as well as that of Jones.

TONY JONES: George Pell, can I just come back to you on this question of the existence of God. Why would God randomly decide to provide proof of his existence to a small group of Jews 2,000 years ago and not subsequently provide any proof after that?

GEORGE PELL: Well, I don’t think there’s ever been any scientific proof. I don’t believe God does anything randomly, although he might set up he might set up a system which works, apparently through, you know, through chance, through random but if you want something done, you’ve got to ask somebody. It’s no good, say, my asking everyone in the congregation will you would do something. Normally you go to a busy person because you know they’ll do it and so for some extraordinary reason God chose the Jews. They weren’t intellectually the equal of either the Egyptians or the…

TONY JONES: Intellectually?

GEORGE PELL: Intellectually, morally…

TONY JONES: How can you know intellectually?

GEORGE PELL: Because you see the fruits of their civilisation. Egypt was the great power for thousands of years before Christianity. Persia was a great power, Caldia. The poor – the little Jewish people, they were originally shepherds. They were stuck. They’re still stuck between these great powers.

TONY JONES: But that’s not a reflection of your intellectual capacity, is it, whether or not you’re a shepherd?

GEORGE PELL: Well, no it’s not but it is a recognition it is a reflection of your intellectual development, be it like many, many people are very, very clever and not highly intellectual but my point is…

TONY JONES: I’m sorry, can I just interrupt? Are you including Jesus in that, who was obviously Jewish and was of that community?


TONY JONES: So intellectually not up to it?

GEORGE PELL: Well, that’s a nice try, Tony. The people, in terms of sophistication, the psalms are remarkable. In terms of their buildings and that sort of thing, they don’t compare with the great powers. But Jesus came not as a philosopher to the elite. He came to the poor and the battlers and for some reason he choose a very difficult but actually they are now an intellectually elite because over the centuries they have been pushed out of every other form of work. They’re a – I mean Jesus, I think, is the greatest the son of God but, leaving that aside, the greatest man that ever live so I’ve got a great admiration for the Jews but we don’t need to exaggerate their contribution in their early days.

Leaving aside Tony Jones’ error regarding historical timeframes (2000 years??), it was wrong of him to try to imply Pell had smeared the Jewish people as an intellectually inferior people. It is a reasonable statement that from the point in history when the Hebrew patriarchs are believed to have lived right through to when the Exodus is believed to have happened, the Egyptians were a far more technologically advanced society than that of their Hebrew contemporaries.

As Pell clarified, intellectual capacity is not intellectual development. Our Hebrew ancestors were not less intelligent than their Egyptians contemporaries, but they were at an earlier stage of their development. The Egyptians had already reached their zenith as a civilisation, a civilisation that would soon be at its end, whereas Jewish civilisation was in its relative infancy.

In the above exchange, Pell could perhaps have been accused of having spoken clumsily, but in fairness to him, it probably wasn’t a topic he was expecting to have to speak about.

Other points of interest included Dawkins confusing atheism for agnosticism.

I live my life as though there is no God but any scientist of any sense will not say that they positively can disprove the existence of anything. I cannot disprove the existence of the Easter Bunny and so I am agnostic about the Easter Bunny. It’s in the same respect that I am agnostic about God.

In actuality, Dawkins is an avowed atheist who lives his life, like most of us, as an agnostic. After all, on the program, Dawkins, not without a modicum of pride, refers to explaining evolution as his “life’s work”. It seems contradictory to have pride in a “life’s work” if one is really operating with the understanding that all a human being amounts to is a complex set of atoms. (For more on this reasoning, see here).

As for the Cardinal, he likely disappointed many critics and followers alike who have a simplistic understanding of religious belief when he stated he believes that human beings have evolved from primate ancestors. Pell made the mistake of saying humans had evolved from Neanderthals, when orthodox scientific theory in fact places Neanderthals on a side branch from Homo Sapiens, both species having had a common ancestor. Instead of graciously accepting that Pell was not rejecting evolutionary theory as Dawkins would have posited, Dawkins instead rudely tried to embarrass Pell for having the details wrong. This from a man who routinely misunderstands the religious beliefs of those he belittles.

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